Nickel Creek will begin taking what they describe as a hiatus in 2007, which may or may not turn out to be the end for that exceptional band. A factor in this decision has undoubtedly been Chris Thile’s new love, The Tensions Mountain Boys (the meaning is in the wordplay), his newly-formed quintet that recorded “How To Grow A Woman From The Ground.” Similarly, New Grass Revival, in 1989, bade their fans “farewell for now,” the primary catalyst at the time being banjoist Bela Fleck’s decision to devote his energies to his new group. NGR fans who were more into the “Grass” than the “New” bemoaned Fleck’s further distancing himself, musically, from bluegrass with his jazz-fusion Flecktones. Chris Thile’s bluegrass-oriented fans, on the other hand, have good reason to rejoice. “How To Grow…” is the closest Thile’s come to bluegrass in quite a while, and if this is the direction he’s heading, it very well could signal a major event for the future of bluegrass music.
Conceived as a whole, and recorded live to 2-track by the band over several days, “How To Grow…” is designed to evoke a metaphorical, loosely autobiographical journey. This larger picture comes into focus with repeated hearings, but what’s obvious right from the start is the excellent composing, arranging, playing and singing delivered with explosive energy. In fact, this is as close to feeling like a live album as any studio record I can recall.
How much of this disc would meet most knowledgeable fans’ definition of bluegrass? Plenty. “Watch ‘at Breakdown” certainly qualifies, with the supercharged mandolin/banjo opening of this original instrumental consciously modeled on Bela Fleck’s “Whitewater,” which Thile considers one of the great opening tracks of all time. Next up is Jack White’s “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” a rocking, crunchy vocal track that evokes Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Stomp.”
Thile’s original, “Stay Away,” sports the kind of raw, naked arrangement that might send bluegrass purists fleeing, but those susceptible to acoustic ballads should respond to its stark beauty. "O Santo de Polvora," a bouncy instrumental originating with the band Milladoiro, moves us back into familiar, grassy territory, and further still on the next cut, Rawlings/Welch’s ebullient “Wayside (Back In Time),” among the catchiest tunes on the record.
Thile’s lilting “You’re an Angel, and I’m Gonna Cry,” is a teary ballad, while the dark, haunting title track by Thomas Anderson Brosseau offers dreamlike, or nightmarelike, imagery, with the moaning fiddle evoking an anguished whisper.
“The Beekeeper” is a now-driving, now-slippery instrumental featuring, in its striking middle section, swirling, cascading string figures that recall the ethereal mood set by the previous track.
After three introspective cuts, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues,” is like a splash of ice water, and boasts one of Thile’s best vocal performances on record. And speaking of vocals, the first two thirds of the traditional “If The Sea Was Whiskey” is a cappela harmony delivered by the band, at a slow pace, with complete value given to the long rests. The swagger gives way to a drunken stagger when the instruments are introduced, barely holding on to the end, as if they are trying not to pass out. Paul Shelasky’s bright instrumental, “Cazadero,” is Celtic grass that serves as a bit of the hair of the dog and rights the ship.
The recent single, “Heart in a Cage,” by the rock band, The Strokes, is transformed by the band into one of the best newgrass recordings of recent years. The original version’s electric guitar figure is so effective on banjo that it sounds like it was made for bluegrass, and the energy and raw, ripping mandolin work by Thile offers a glimpse to those who’ve never heard him live of what they are missing. However, anyone offended by the F-word should know that Thile leaves it in the song, as written.
“I’m Yours If You Want Me” is the most painfully direct of the slower numbers, almost an art song in its eschewing of all but the bare essentials, which makes “The Eleventh Reel,” a skittering Thile bluegrass instrumental, a welcome dessert that leaves the ear, and tapping feet, happy as the disc concludes.
Finally, a few words about The Tensions Mountain Boys. Fiddler Gabe Witcher, bassist Greg Garrison, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and guitarist Chris Eldridge (son of the Seldom Scene’s Ben Eldridge) are in line to join Thile in, as John Cowan, Pikleny’s former employer, refers to as the Legion of Acoustic Superheroes. These are young guys of Thile’s generation, and one gets the sense that there is virtually nothing they can’t do. It is easy to see why Thile picked them to climb with him to his next peak.
More about Chris Thile:NICKEL - Nickel Creek at Schuba's (Chgo Trib, May 9, 2001)